Although "The Bonny Swans" is an original composition by Loreena McKennitt, it is based closely on a traditional murder ballad "The Cruel Sister", also known as "Two Sisters", "The Twa Sisters" and a plethora of other names in several languages, though its first appearance in print appears to have been as "The Miller And The King's Daughter" as a broadside of 1656. "The Twa Sisters" is a Child Ballad like "The Unquiet Grave". Whatever its provenance, it is doubtful if any earlier version sounded quite like "The Bonny Swans". An American student of Celtic culture (who shall remain nameless) once said that hearing a voice like this was one of the things that convinced him there really is a God in Heaven. While most musicologists wouldn't go quite that far, it has to be said that the siren-like soprano voice of the Canadian multi-instrumentalist coupled with a fine guitar riff echoed an octave lower and answered by her violinist gives this song a dream-like quality in live concert. The softer and longer album version runs to an extended 7 minutes 18 seconds.
In this latter day adaptation of a tale of wanton cruelty, there are three sisters of a farmer, two of whom are walking by the river when the older one pushes the younger one in. As the price of saving her from drowning, the elder sister demands she give her the hand of her betrothed. The poor girl drowns and turns into a swan, which is taken from the water by a miller and his daughter. A harp maker passes by, and fashions a harp from the breast bone of the dead bird. Then he takes the harp to the court of a king - who appears to be the farmer - and the harp plays by itself, accusing the sister who murdered her "for the sake of a man".
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England, for above 2